The Great War: World War I

Schlieffen Plan | Eastern Front | Trench War | Italy | Russia | Sea War | War's End

World War I was called the Great War. Never before had war been fought on such a massive scale. It had been 99 years since the end of the last general European war. Yet it was not truly a world war. Certainly there was some fighting on the oceans, in Africa and Asia, but most of the fighting was centered in Europe. It would be dwarfed by a true world war which occurred a mere generation later. Nevertheless, the case can be made that the first world war was the turning point in European history. It was the final demise of feudalism. At the war's end kings, emperors, and every other kind of nobility would finally lose their grip on power. For better or worse, nationalism would sweep away the idea that a single family could rule over multiple nations without the consent of the governed.

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The roots of World War I show that much of the tension that caused the war was embedded in a competition for colonies overseas. Imperial expansion contained the notion that feudal power could be projected over the entire world. The war's beginning was also an unfortunate conjunction of diplomatic alliances and circumstances which came together at this point in history. The war was by no means inevitable. A more far-sighted foreign policy by Germany could easily have forestalled a general war.

The Schlieffen Plan

Map of the Schlieffen Plan

The Great War kicked off with Austria's invasion of Serbia to avenge the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand. But this would become a mere side-show. The main show began when Germany executed the Schlieffen Plan. This was a military document, long in the making, constructed by head of the German general staff, Schlieffen. It stipulated that if Germany were confronted with a two front war with both France and Russia (as indeed happened) that Germany would mobilize her forces on the western front, and quickly invade France, knocking her out of the war first. In order to get around the major French defenses, the plan called for German troops to rush through Belgium.

With accustomed Prussian efficiency, the German army swept through Belgium, quickly over-running the Belgian Army. This move prompted Great Britain to declare war on Germany, quickly assembling a force, and sending it to France. The question is often asked whether the Schlieffen Plan was truly to Germany's advantage. The answer is had it been fully executed, it may have, indeed, quickly knocked France out of the war. But like most plans, it relied on assumptions that could not be fully tested before actual conflict. The German's withdrew troops from the right wing in an effort to shore up the left flank. The German's got within twelve miles of Paris. The French were largely defeated and what became known as the Battle of the Marne looked to an inevitable German victory. However, the deployment of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force), the determination of the French army (some transferred from the Maginot Line), and the petering out of German strength caused the Germans to be thrown back a short distance. Both sides began to dig in. Mobile war was over on the western front and the trench war begun.

The Eastern Front

War on the eastern front was slower to develop, mainly because the German's initially concentrated their force in the west. Also, the Russian Army was far less efficient and took considerable time to mobilize. The distances in the east were far greater. The Russians had a different gauge railway than the rest of Europe, this also made it difficult to transport troops across borders. Nevertheless, the Germans and Russians finally came to grips in two monumental battles, first at Tannenburg (1914) and second at the Massurian Lakes (1914). Though the Russians had far greater numbers, their forces were soundly beaten. Superior German training and technology played a large roll. The Russians also revealed their movements to the Germans because all of their radio communications between units were sent not coded (in the clear).

The Russians had far greater success against the Austrians. But the pressures of war were beginning to create problems in Russian society. People began to tire of the massive losses of manpower at the front and the deprivations caused by having to allocate resources to the army, as well as dissatisfaction with the autocratic rule of the Czars.

The Gallipoli Campaign (1915) proved to be an important component of the war on the eastern front. The allies comprised of France, Britain, and Russia realized that Russia was geographically isolated, making it difficult to get aid from the west. With Turkey on the side of Germany and Austria the best warm water passage to Russia through the black sea was blocked. (The Baltic was already blocked by the German fleet.) Britain resolved to open the Black Sea to allied shipping. A fleet and invasion force was sent. The thinking among the entente powers was that Turkey would be easily defeated. However, she proved a tough nut to crack, and the Gallipoli Campaign became a disaster for the British. Anglo-allied forces were tied up on a small peninsula, which was only held at great expense in lives and treasure. Finally, the allies were forced to abandon the project.

Trench War

The war bogged down in the west and Gallipoli. This was due to the primacy of defensive tactics and weapons at this point in military history. Infantry weapons came to have a longer range, with more accurate fire. Machine guns were introduced which could mow down columns of charging infantry. Gas weapons, and massed artillery were used. Consequently, the infantry dug trenches. Soon the networks of trenches became hugely complex, and very effective in stifling attacks made in the old style. At Verdun a huge German attack made small gains but resulted in the loss of nearly a million men (dead, wounded, and missing) between the two sides. Subsequent battles on the western front resulted in similar losses for very modest gains.

In an effort to break the dead-lock various strategies and tactics were employed, including tanks, which were used in the 1916 Battle of the Somme. The tanks made little headway due to the lack of understanding regarding the role of the new weapon platform, as well as the initial deficiencies of the weapon itself. Nevertheless, the fearsomeness of tanks boded well for their future employment. Airplanes had been invented barely ten years before the start of the war. Initially, they were used for observation, but soon the projection of air power was undertaken and used to make attacks behind enemy lines. Toward the end of the war the German's began to develop new tactics that returned mobility to the battlefield. However, it was too late for it to make any difference in this war and would not be effectively deployed until World War II.

Italy Comes into the War

Italy was induced to come into the war on the side of the entente in 1915 by promises of territorial concessions from the Austrians should they be defeated. Italy's war with Austria proved disastrous. Italian forces were soundly defeated at Caporetto, the retreat from which is depicted in "Farewell to Arms", by Ernest Hemingway. Nevertheless, the entrance of Italy proved an additional drain on Austrian and German resources.

The Fall of Russia

Russia worked hard to win the war. However, internal problems took their toll. Czar Nicholas II lost power after a series of strikes and demonstrations (some of them within the army itself). A Provisional government under Karensky tried to continue prosecution of the war. But Germany made a "deal with the devil". They loaded the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and theorist, Vladimir Lenin in a sealed train and sent him into Russia. The German government was in no way sympathetic with communist movements. However, Lenin promised to take Russia out of the war should he gain control. Lenin took power in a bloody civil war and kept his promise to the Germans. His government signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk which not only took Russia out of the war but gave up large portions of formerly Imperial Russia, including parts of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Lenin agreed because he needed peace with the Germans in order to clamp down violently on political opposition within Russia.

The Germans were then able to transfer the forces which were being consumed on the eastern front to the west. However, these additional forces would be countered by a new entrant into the war, the United States.

The War at Sea

Britain had traditionally controlled the sea lanes around Europe and even the world for more than one-hundred years. This had proved to be a great advantage in many wars. Britain could prevent over-seas supplies going to her enemies, and could project land forces to any coast in the world. Britain's strategy was to take away the colonies of her enemies and blockade their ports. Germany had been building her sea power prior to the war. Her fleet was mainly tied up in the Baltic Sea. As the war carried on, a breakout of the surface fleet was attempted. The British countered and there was a naval battle at Jutland which proved to be indecisive, but was damaging enough that the German surface fleet decided not to venture again from the Baltic.

A relatively new innovation, the submarine, was used extensively in this war. The Germans and even the Austrians built a significant number of "U-boats". These quiet running craft had diesel engines, which ran while they were on the surface. They also contained an extensive array of batteries, which - when charged, could sustain the craft underwater for several days. Subs were a way for the Germans to avoid Britain's powerful surface fleet and travel the oceans seeking out merchant vessels and vulnerable enemy naval units. Submarines were highly effective, but also controversial. It was the sinking of several passenger vessels by German subs that brought America into the war.

The End of the War

Besides German submarine warfare, the Zimmerman Telegram incensed Americans enough to provoke an outcry that led to American entry. This telegram was an attempt to get Mexico to enter the war on the side of Germany. The Germans promised Mexico they could have much of the Southwest United States if they helped Germany. Around two million U.S. troops flooded into France. Even though the German's drew troops from the Eastern front they were insufficient to stop combined forces of France, Britain, and the U.S. Finally, a British offensive at Amiens broke the German defensive lines. The German's surrendered before enemy troops could flood over Germany. This would largely preserve Germany's infrastructure, making them more able to prepare for the next conflict.

Map of Europe After World War I

Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to leave the country. He bought an estate in Holland. Germany was forced to pay extensive reparations, and admit guilt for the war. She also lost control of some vital industrial areas near France. Of course, she was compelled to give Alsace and Lorraine back to France. All of this was determined at the Treaty of Versailles.

Perhaps of greater significance was the complete dismemberment of Austria. What had once been an empire was split into Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, and other assorted countries. Poland was partly reconstituted from a piece of Austria. It was the end of empire. The great despots of the previous century had all gone away. Russia had succumbed to revolution. Wilhelm had skipped off to Holland, and now the Hapsburgs were deposed and the hard won gains of several centuries taken away in a moment. The rationale for the redrawing of the map of Europe was largely the inspiration of the American president, Woodrow Wilson, who insisted that countries reflect their national constituencies. He had also wanted to form a "League of Nations", this was part of the treaty, but never ratified by the U.S. Senate.

The Great War was a watershed event. It was the final end of old Europe. The new Europe, at least in the short term, would be no less violent, perhaps less just. But even as World War I ended empire in Europe, the coming age would see the demise of Imperialism altogether. Britain would voluntarily free her subject nations. Africa would see liberation in the 1960s, and even the pseudo-empire of the Soviet Union would crumble in 1989. World War I, was thought to be a war to end all wars, but it was not the end of history, merely a new beginning.

European History

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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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